Kirk sat in his command chair, watching the Guardian planet disappear in the blackness of space, wishing he could lose himself in the same void. Three weeks seemed an eternity as the Enterprise waited for research vessel, Newton, to arrive as relief. An eternity--a life--neither appeared of consequence to the Guardian, who offered a doorway to the past too vast and terrible to consider. His mind and body ached; sleep a courtesy his conscience denied him. His heart still clenched in spasm, no absolution given for restoring the timeline. No pardon granted for the taking of one life while saving countless others. The bridge was a haze of worried faces he chose to ignore. He would not acknowledge the compassion that stared back at him, the pity that scalded him with its gentle touch.
Shift over, he gave Spock the Conn and bolted toward the lift, the most energy he had exhibited all day. Holding himself painfully erect, he entered the lift, standing rigidly still until the doors closed, sealing him away from everyone who cared. The sanctuary of his quarters called to him but he knew it to be false hope, their quiet dimness just another cruelty inflicted as his brain flashed the image of a dead Edith against his retinas.
"Deck five," he ordered, a soft sigh escaping his lips as he reached up to rub his throbbing neck.
"I'm worried about you, sir. Is there anything I can do to help?" The voice was tentative, unsure of its boundaries but determined to make itself heard.
Kirk twisted sharply to his right, caught completely unaware by Uhura who had also entered the lift. Her eyes widened, realizing his startlement, subconsciously taking a step back. "I'm sorry, sir, I thought you saw me get on."
She caught a flinch of his eyes, eyes that no longer sparkled. What had happened inside the Guardian? None of the three officers chose to discuss their time in the past and the reports they sent to Starfleet were encrypted prior to her receipt.
The slump of his shoulders was driven away by her presence, the pretense of everything being normal resurrected to ensure distance was maintained. "I'm fine, Lieutenant, thank you." His answer was brief, and even couched in courtesy Nyota knew it to be a lie.
"No, sir, you're not fine. I don't know what happened inside the Guardian, but something obviously did. Please let me help." She knew she was skirting insubordination but her concern for Kirk pushed past any worries for herself. Over the months and years they had served together she thought they had finally found something more than the chain of command. It remained unspoken but still she felt a closeness between them, a shared smile, a considering look, intimate yet so far wholly within regulations.
And now she saw his eyes tighten again, as if he was feeling pain but holding himself in check. His irises all but disappeared as his pupils dilated and the muscle along his jaw ticced in barely suppressed anger. "Nothing for you to be concerned about, Lieutenant. We were successful; now if you will excuse me--" The lift doors opened and Kirk attempted to exit but found himself stopped by Uhura's hand pressed against his forearm.
"I'm available if you ever need to talk about it, Captain." She matched him look for look, scared yet impressed that she could stand up to him.
Kirk's eyes glanced to where she held his arm before moving back to focus on her face. Did she feel a tremble run through him? For a moment she thought he would snatch his arm from her grasp, anger and a tempest of dark emotions threatening to erupt before being shuttered behind his command persona.
"I'm fine, Uhura." His voice was calm with false patience, using her name his only concession to her show of concern.
"Goodnight, sir." She smiled hesitantly, trying to channel some happiness to him before releasing his arm, knowing she would gain nothing but a reprimand if she pushed him further. It was still early but she knew he would not venture into any of the common areas later. Since returning to the ship each day was the same: a quiet but emotionally draining shift on the bridge followed by a hushed evening--the crew somehow sensing and reacting to the Captain's brooding mood. Even Spock and McCoy rarely interacted with the crew anymore. Were they sequestered with Kirk or locked away in their own private Hell?
Kirk entered his quarters, desperate for solitude and found--Edith.
"Good evening, Mister Kirk." She greeted him, primly sitting in the chair on the other side of his desk.
"Who are you?" Kirk looked at the figure dressed as Edith was the night of her death, but showing no sign of her later trauma. He fought the urge to run to her and take her in his arms. She could not be real.
"I'm Edith Keeler." The look, the voice, they all seemed real.
"Edith is dead--I killed her," the declaration and confession symptoms of his anger and guilt.
"Indeed I am, Mister Kirk, but a lie is still a poor way to say hello. I died but you did not kill me."
Kirk looked at the figure before him, finding himself caught up in her soft voice, long-lashed eyes and demure smile. Deciding to play along, he sat down in the chair across from the image of Edith and waited expectantly. "Okay, Edith, you have my attention."
"Flippancy, Mister Kirk? Is that all I am worthy of now?" She stared at him, raising her chin in the same way Edith had done when she felt her authority being challenged.
"You're asking me to carry on a conversation with the dead--a ghost. I think I'm entitled to a bit of skepticism." He softened his words with a slight bow of his head.
"We still speak the same language, don't we--of the stars, a better world? Where is your curiosity, if nothing else?" She smiled at him, daring him to play her game.
"Maybe it died along with Edith. Maybe I find your using her image to talk to me offensive." His voice was flat with anger. He didn't like her game.
"It's necessary. Oh, Jim, don't be like this. Being dead gives me infinite insight. I had to die--I see that now. My view of the future still happened. It just happened without me. Man did reach out into space--he did find hope. It really is a future worth living for." Her eyes were lit from within, the passion of her long ago dreams shining through with the same brilliance he remembered.
"But you died." The answer was ugly and unavoidable.
"I don't want you mourning me. I've been dead for three hundred years and it's time for you to move on with your life." Her tone was the same one she used when preaching to the masses back in the soup kitchen.
"Maybe it's been three hundred years to you, but it's been barely three weeks for me."
"Don't waste time on the dead, Jim. You will have more than enough time to do that when you're dead too."
The words sent a shiver along his spine. "Are you here to hurry that along?"
"Oh no, you won't be joining me for quite some time yet. No, I came here to correct my own issue with the time line."
"If you're dead, how can you change the time line? Why does it even matter to you anymore?" In for a penny, in for a pound, McCoy would say. He waited patiently for Edith's ghost to answer him.
"Perhaps because I *am* a do-gooder and I insist that you survive, Mister Kirk. My death has hurt you deeply and caused you to retreat within yourself." She fairly glowed with determination.
"I'm grieving. Isn't that normal?" With her he could acknowledge the truth. Her loss made his pale in comparison.
"Yes, I'm afraid so, but you're pulling away too much, pushing out those who care the most about you. That's a path you don't want to follow much further or it will become a way of life."
"I can't talk to McCoy or Spock about it right now. McCoy feels guilty in his own right and Spock just accepts it as logical--"
"Jim Kirk! You don't believe that! Mister Spock is greatly aware and saddened by my death and the pain you're suffering because of it. He's just not experienced in voicing it--and Doctor McCoy will forgive himself when you do. But there is another person you can talk to, someone who's offered to listen."
Kirk froze, knowing exactly who the image of Edith meant. "No."
Sensing many layers to his denial, she pushed even harder. "I once told you that Mister Spock was meant to be at your side and always would be. I was wrong. Now I know neither he nor Doctor McCoy will be, but Uhura *can* be. She *will* be if you but give her a chance."
"It's not allowed. She's a part of my crew--my bridge crew." He glanced at the door, pulling away emotionally from the conversation.
"What better position to be in? She can be at your side without concern for duty or propriety. As a part of your command team her comings and goings are of no particular interest." She made it sound so simple.
"The crew would know. Command would know." He still refused to look at her.
"The crew would accept it because you would be discreet. Command would turn a blind eye as long as the ship ran smoothly. They have done it for others; they would do it for you."
"What does any of this have to do with the time line?" Finding the courage to look at her again, he turned the conversation back to what had been its point.
"Before McCoy's trip through the Guardian, you had come to notice Ms. Uhura, and even more importantly, she had noticed you. Now, that's trying to change. My death has made you wary of attachments, of allowing yourself to love someone again. I see years of failed relationships and casual dalliances. You won't subject Uhura to something so meaningless but now you're afraid to risk more.
"I've come to you tonight to protect you from that Fate. Don't let your grief for me extinguish your ability to love. The days and years ahead are worth living for." The earnestness of her speech was etched across her face.
"How 'Dickensian' of you."
Undeterred by his sarcasm, she continued, "Scoff if you like, Jim. You know I am right. She's in the arboretum right now, sitting next to the koi pond."
"And what am I supposed to say as I just happen upon her?" The absurdity of getting pick up points from a ghost was not lost to him.
"How about 'I'm sorry'? You've said it to me thousands of times since I died; now go say it to someone who's alive."
Kirk raised his head from where it rested on his folded arms and found himself still sitting at his desk. He looked around the room, startled by its emptiness. Standing to look through the room divider to see inside his sleeping alcove, the stiffness in his legs and back suggested he had been sitting for a very long time. A glance at the chronometer confirmed it.
"I'm losing it..." he mumbled to himself, trying to rub the grit of sleep from his eyes. He looked around the room, trying to see some evidence that his visitor had been real. Nothing. Everything was just as he had left it that morning. Had Edith really been here? Was it her ghost? Had it been some alien life form using her image to make contact? Most likely she was the byproduct of fried neurons and frayed synapses attempting to repair themselves during exhausted sleep.
It was still several hours away before going up to the bridge would not raise suspicion. McCoy used eyes on all shifts to report 'unusual' captain sightings. Knowing he would never go back to sleep, Kirk considered where he could go and not be seen by the doctor's underground network. The arboretum seemed like the perfect place.
The lights were dimmed low in an approximation of night. Plants needed rest just like animals did to ensure a healthy biological clock. Kirk walked down the manicured path, his footfalls cushioned and muffled by soft moss. His course took him toward the koi pond, although he pretended not to notice.
Uhura was sitting exactly where Edith said she would be. A small focused light shining against a stacked rock wall made the water that flowed gently down its irregular face shimmer and glisten on its journey to the tranquil pool below. A brush of her long fingers against the dark surface formed ripples that traveled the length of the pond. A closer look made Kirk realize Uhura was not playing in the water; instead she was feeding the koi. The largest of them was practically eating from her hand.
"I wouldn't let Mister Sulu catch you doing that," he warned lightly, knowing of the erstwhile hobbyist's affection for his fish.
"What?--Oh-- sir! You scared me--" Uhura stammered as she tried to stand at attention and hide the bag of fish food all at the same time.
"At ease, Lieutenant. I'm not Sulu and I'm impressed you've gained their trust like that." He made his point by sitting on the ledge that surrounded the pond, watching the koi dart back into the cover of lily pads and deeper depths.
"It's nothing special, sir, just a little patience, attention and reward." She smiled, suddenly at eye level with Kirk as he rested against the pond's raised outer wall.
"You make it sound so easy." The sudden bleakness in his tone made Uhura realize they were no longer talking about the koi. "But what happens when the patience runs thin, the attention is too much and the reward is not enough?" The light that highlighted the wall allowed her to see deep into Kirk's eyes, eyes no longer shuttered, eyes welling with pain and hurt so like tears.
Moving slowly and methodically, just as she once did to befriend the koi, Uhura answered him. "Then I sit down," by example she sat down right next to him, "and calm myself so they can recognize the attention is well meant--" She reached out and brushed her fingertips gently across his cheek. He did not pull away as she thought he might."--and wait for them to come to me."
His lips were warm and tender as they gently, tentatively, brushed hers. "The reward is always worth waiting for," she whispered against his mouth, feeling his arms encircle her body as he moved to deepen the kiss.
The embrace ending more abruptly than it started, Kirk raised his head, his eyes finding hers with a hungry, searching look that quickened her pulse. "I should be sorry for that."
The taste of him still on her bruised lips, the scent of him still in her nostrils, it would be easy to lose herself in the moment but Uhura kept her senses. Instead, realizing she held a needful soul, she offered a coy smile. "I'm glad you're not."
Like flint against steel, his eyes flashed briefly at her words. Failing to ignite the tinder she knew lay within, Uhura watched his eyes again surrender to the dark. "Can you talk about it now?"
"I let her die--" He spoke without seeing.
"Edith. She was the focal point in time. McCoy saved her once--I had to stop him." She let him talk, no longer interrupting for fear of shutting him down once again.
"Spock was able to get the tricorder working. We saw headlines of Edith leading the peace movement--It allowed Hitler to win the war. McCoy saved her from being hit by a truck and the timeline changed. When we got there I held him back until it was too late." He could still hear the screeching tires, her scream cut short by an eternity of silence.
"And you loved her." It was not a question.
"I loved her."
"I'm sorry." The confession broke her heart.
The tenderness too much, he backed away, a rueful smile finally making a home for itself on his face, "I came down here to say that to you."
"For acting like a jerk in the lift today." A sheepish shrug of his shoulders gave credence to his sense of embarrassment.
"I understand now. I can't make the pain go away but I can tell you that the future is still worth living." Her smile was lit with encouragement and hope--something he desperately needed at the moment.
"I seem to be getting this lecture a lot lately." His eyes were glazed, focusing on an image only he could see.
"Then pay attention to it, sir. Wise words they are." She willed him to believe she was saying more than platitudes.
"I'll try, but it's going to take some time." Suddenly coming to the present, his eyes were only for her.
"Yes sir, it will, but it will come." She seemed so sure something better was in store for him.
"What will come?" Latching onto her confidence, he asked with some semblance of hope.
"Happiness." The time was not now, but it would come.
"I look forward to it." Attempting to walk away, he pulled himself up short, turning to ask, "Oh, Lieutenant, do you come here often?"
"Right now I do when Mister Sulu is on gamma shift rotation. I actually have permission to feed his koi so they stay on schedule." It was better than an emergency beacon in making her whereabouts known.
"I might come down here again sometime--perhaps to see if you can teach me that trust thing." His face was as ambiguous as his words, waiting to take her lead on possibly something more between them in the future.
"Somehow I think you'll be an apt student." If her expression was not totally innocent she would be forgiven.
A smile, slight but genuine, lit his eyes, easing the sadness from them as he left her to the koi.